DOJ Orders Review Of Agreements That Target Unconstitutional Policing
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is signaling that some major changes to the way police departments are investigated might be coming soon. The Justice Department has started a broad review of federal agreements that were intended to overhaul troubled police departments. The review covers deals that had already been made by the Obama administration as well as those that are pending. These deals are called consent decrees.
NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk about this. And Carrie, why does the Trump Justice Department say it is conducting this review?
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Well, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says it's not the federal government's job to manage state and local law enforcement agencies. He wants to be partners with those local police forces to help protect public safety, shore up police morale. Jeff Sessions says officers do dangerous work every day. They deserve respect, he says, even if there are a few bad apples out there.
So Sessions has directed subordinates at the Justice Department to review those consent decrees the civil rights investigators have struck to make changes to police departments, and he asked a judge for a three-month delay while he reconsiders whether to move ahead at all with a deal that Obama reached with Baltimore.
MCEVERS: So explain how the federal government has authority over state and local police at all.
JOHNSON: Well, Kelly, there's a federal law on the books that was passed by Congress after the brutal beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles years ago. The law makes clear the Justice Department can come in and prosecute an individual cop for using excessive force. Here's how Jeff Sessions described his view of the Justice Department's role to reporters earlier this year.
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JEFF SESSIONS: It's very clear what the role is, and that is that any serious allegation of excessive force is subject to a federal investigation. Sometimes local police departments really step up and do a great job, and it's almost disrespectful of them for the feds to go in, try and take it over.
JOHNSON: Kelly, that's Jeff Sessions saying even in cases of police brutality, he wants to defer to local governments at least at first.
MCEVERS: But this law requires that the federal government investigate patterns of unconstitutional policing. So how does that fit into the Trump Justice Department's priorities?
JOHNSON: Well, wait for it. This is where the major change is coming in the Trump Justice Department. In the Obama years, civil rights investigators dug into dozens of police forces, uncovering systemic violations, things like patterns of shootings and beatings of unarmed people, racial discrimination and stops on the street or stopping people in cars for illegitimate reasons. Justice in the Obama years wrote detailed reports about its findings, famously in Ferguson, Mo., in Chicago.
JOHNSON: But as of about a month ago, Jeff Sessions told reporters he hadn't read those reports. Now he may want to reopen some of those consent decrees that Obama negotiated to impose reforms.
MCEVERS: How easy will it be to do away with some of these consent decrees and agreements?
JOHNSON: Well, it depends. In some cases, the defendants, the cities, are pushing back. That's what's happening in Baltimore where the mayor and the police commissioner say they want the Justice Department to move ahead. They oppose any delay. They want to finalize that agreement to overhaul the police force.
And in these consent decree cases, there's another thing to keep in mind. These deals are overseen by federal judges. The Trump administration will have to convince those judges there's a good reason to make changes. And as we've seen already this year, the Trump Justice Department has a mixed record advancing some of its priorities in court.
MCEVERS: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks so much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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